New form of U.S. healthcare saves money, improves quality, one insurer finds

In one of the largest tests of a novel way to deliver and pay for healthcare, insurer CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield announced on Thursday that 1.1 million people receiving care through its "patient-centered medical homes" last year were hospitalized less often and stayed for fewer days compared to patients in traditional fee-for-service care.

Medical homes, a centerpiece of President Barack Obama's healthcare reform, have been heralded as one of the best hopes for reducing the cost of U.S. healthcare, the highest in the world, and improving its quality, which lags that of many other wealthy countries.

Medical homes are basically groups of primary-care providers who pledge to coordinate care, adhere to guidelines meant to improve patients' health, and avoid unnecessary tests, among other steps.

According to CareFirst, its medical home program, in its fourth year, also delivered high-quality care, measured by yardsticks such as whether doctors gave recommended cancer screenings and immunizations. The organization said it saved $130 million or 3.5 percent compared to projected spending under standard fee-for-service.

The savings reached a level "I wouldn't have thought possible," said CareFirst President Chet Burrell. The non-profit covers 3.4 million people in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia.

Providers who hit the mark receive higher reimbursements from CareFirst: 12 percent above the standard rate just for participating in the medical home program and up to 36 percent more for quality outcomes. A physician could therefore receive $148 for a procedure usually reimbursed at $100.

The insurer can afford that because better primary care, which accounts for just 6 percent of all medical spending, can reduce hospitalizations and visits to expensive specialists.

A key element of the medical homes model is data, including information about which specialists are especially pricey, and electronic medical records alerting doctors about check-ups, medications and other care for patients with chronic conditions such as asthma and diabetes.

The $130 million in savings was driven largely by 6.4 percent fewer hospital admissions, 11 percent fewer hospital days and 11 percent fewer visits to outpatient facilities.

The last reflects the fact that medical homes have evening and weekend hours, so patients don't need to visit clinics and emergency rooms for non-urgent care after-hours.

Medical homes have not been uniformly assessed as successful, however. A study of 32 of them, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association this year, found they did not reduce hospitalizations or costs and missed 10 of 11 quality goals.

Other studies have been more encouraging, said Marci Nielsen, chief executive of the Patient-Centered Primary Care Collaborative. A year ago, BlueCross Blue Shield of Michigan reported its medical-home program saved $155 million and cut both emergency-room visits and hospital stays.

The varying results underline the need to identify which aspects of medical homes such as being open on weekends and evenings or aggressively managing the care of the sickest patients - are key, she said.

(Reporting by Sharon Begley; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

One dead as powerful typhoon hits Japan's Okinawa

One man died, more than 500,000 people were urged to evacuate and hundreds of flights were canceled in Japan as a strong typhoon brought torrential rain and high winds to its southwestern islands and could bring heavy rain to Tokyo later this week.

Typhoon Neoguri weakened from its original status as a super typhoon but remained intense, with gusts of more than 250 km per hour (155 mph). It was powering through the Okinawa island chain where emergency rain and high-seas warnings were in effect.

The storm was at its most powerful when passing Okinawa, some 1,600 km (1,000 miles) southwest of Tokyo on Tuesday, but the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) warned of heavy rains and potential flooding in Kyushu, the westernmost of Japan's main islands, as well as heavy rain in the rest of the nation as the storm turns east later in the week.

"People must take the utmost caution," Keiji Furuya, state minister in charge of disaster management, told a news conference.

One man died after his boat was swamped by high waves, NHK national television said. Several people suffered minor injuries from falls.

More than 50,000 households in Okinawa lost power and an oil refinery halted operations. Television footage showed a collapsed roof of a shopping arcade, street lights rocking in high winds and branches being blown down largely deserted streets.

There are no nuclear plants on Okinawa, but there are two on Kyushu, which lies in the area through which the typhoon is likely to pass after hitting Okinawa. There is another on Shikoku island, which borders Kyushu and could also be affected.

All are shut down due to national policy and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which was wrecked by an earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, is on the other side of the country.

"When the wind blows most strongly, it's impossible to stand. You have to hold on to something," said Kei Shima, a self-employed Okinawa resident in her 30s. "The lights are fading in and out, like the house is haunted. The rain is getting stronger and falling sideways."

Neoguri was roughly 110 km (68 miles) west of Kumejima of island at 5 p.m. (0800 GMT) and moving north at 30 kph (19 mph), with sustained winds of 162 kph (100 mph).

Kadena Air Base, one of the largest U.S. military facilities on Okinawa, was at its highest level of storm alert and all outside activity was prohibited.

Nansei Sekiyu KK, a Japanese refiner wholly owned by Brazil's Petrobras, said it had suspended oil refining operations at its 100,000 barrels-per-day Nishihara refinery in Okinawa on Monday evening.

A JMA official said the storm will maintain its strength as it heads north but gradually turn to the east, making landfall in Kyushu before raking its way up the main island of Honshu and coming close to Tokyo on Friday.

"But it will be weaker by then, so that Tokyo can mainly expect a lot of rain, and maybe some gusts of wind," he added.

Around two to four typhoons make landfall in Japan each year but they are unusual in July.

(Additional reporting by Olivier Fabre and Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Matt Driskill)

Amazon rainforest grew after climate change 2,000 years ago: study

Swathes of the Amazon may have been grassland until a natural shift to a wetter climate about 2,000 years ago let the rainforests form, according to a study that challenges common belief that the world’s biggest tropical forest is far older.

The arrival of European diseases after Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492 may also have hastened the growth of forests by killing indigenous people farming the region, the scientists wrote in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

"The dominant ecosystem was more like a savannah than the rainforest we see today," John Carson, lead author at the University of Reading in England, said of the findings about the southern Amazon.

The scientists said that a shift toward wetter conditions, perhaps caused by natural shifts in the Earth’s orbit around the sun, led to growth of more trees starting about 2,000 years ago.

The scientists studied man-made earthworks, uncovered by recent logging in Bolivia, that included ditches up to about a kilometer (1,100 yards) long and up to 3 meters deep and 4 meters wide.

They found large amounts of grass pollen in ancient sediments of nearby lakes, suggesting the region had been covered by savannah. They also found evidence of plantings of maize, pointing to farming.

PRISTINE

The Amazon has traditionally been seen as a pristine, dense rainforest, populated by hunter-gatherers. In recent years, however, archaeologists have found hints that indigenous peoples lived in the thick forest, but managed to clear tracts of land for farming.

The PNAS study suggests a new idea – that the forest simply did not exist in some regions.

The "findings suggest that rather than being rainforest hunter-gatherers, or large-scale forest clearers, the people of the Amazon from 2,500 to 500 years ago were farmers," the University of Reading said in a statement.

Carson said that perhaps a fifth of the Amazon basin, in the south, may have been savannah until the shift, with forests covering the rest.

In one lake, Laguna Granja, rainforest plants only took over from grass as the main sources of pollen in sediments about 500 years old, suggesting a link to the arrival of Europeans.

The purpose of the earthworks is unknown - they could have been defensive or for drainage or religious purposes.

And understanding the forest could help solve puzzles about climate change.

The Amazon rainforest affects climate change because trees soak up heat-trapping carbon dioxide as they grow and release it when they rot or are burnt. Brazil has sharply slowed deforestation rates in recent years.

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Carson said that the growth of Amazonian forests could, for instance, have contributed to the Little Ice Age, from about 1350 to 1850 by absorbing heat-trapping gases from the air.

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Michael Heckenberger, an expert on the Amazon at the University of Florida, said the study added to evidence that people living in the Amazon managed nature.

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"These indigenous systems were highly sophisticated...There are over 80 domesticated or semi-domesticated crops in the Amazon," he said. "In Europe at the time they were working with about six."

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(Reporting by Alister Doyle; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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China's arid north feeds water-rich south: Kemp

Booming demand for food in China's southern and eastern cities is worsening water shortages in arid northern provinces, adding to the country's environmental problems, new research shows.

"Consumption in highly developed coastal provinces is largely relying on water resources in the water-scarce northern provinces, such as Xinjiang, Hebei and Inner Mongolia, thus significantly contributing to the water scarcity in these regions," an international group of researchers wrote in the latest edition of the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

"Rich coastal provinces gain economic profits from international exports at the expense of ecosystem quality in the less developed regions," the researchers from the University of Maryland and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis concluded ("Virtual Scarce Water in China" June 2014).

Rain and snowfall is concentrated in south and south-western China, as well as along the east coast, which should be the most favorable regions for agricultural production.

But these provinces have experienced the fastest industrialization and urbanization since reform and opening in 1979. Large amounts of farm land have been converted to industrial and residential use.

In response, much of the country's agricultural production has been pushed north and inland to regions with much less rain.

TERMS OF TRADE

Some 109 billion cubic meters of water was traded between Chinese provinces in 2007, mostly in the form of "virtual water" contained in fresh and processed foods.

The main virtual flows are from agricultural regions like Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Hebei, Ningxia and Gansu to the megacities of Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Chongqing, as well as the heavily industrialized provinces of Shandong, Zhejiang and Guangdong along the east coast.

Water flows demonstrate the 19th century British economist David Ricardo's theory of comparative advantage. China's southern provinces have advantages over the north in both industry and agriculture. But their comparative advantage is greater in industry, so the south has specialized in industrial production and forced the north to specialize in farming.

As provinces and cities along the eastern seaboard have become ever more dominant industrially, farm production has been driven into the drier areas of the north and west.

The key change over the last three decades, as the researchers explain, is that the south has become much better at industrial production, rather than the north becoming better agriculture.

Xinjiang, which has annual rainfall of less than 10 centimeters, exports billions of tonnes of water each year to Shanghai (where annual rainfall is 1 meter or more) and Guangdong (which receives 2-3 meters per year).

Farming accounts for 98 percent of water consumption in Xinjiang, 84 percent in Inner Mongolia and 83 percent in Hebei, compared with just 67 percent in Guangdong and 31 percent in Shanghai ("Virtual scarce water in China: supplemental data" June 2014).

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WATER TRANSFERS

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Industrial and water imbalances are worsening China's environmental problems. Northern China is already subjected to dust storms and far worse pollution than the south. Now the region is suffering from increasing water stress.

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For example, Zhejiang is a major exporting province on China's east coast. But only 20 percent of the ecological impact of Zhejiang's exports was felt in the province, according to the researchers, while the rest was "outsourced" to other parts of China, including Xinjiang (40 percent), Hebei (7 percent) and Inner Mongolia (5 percent).

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Increased use of irrigation and reliance on groundwater have enabled northern provinces to boost agricultural output, but is not sustainable in the long term as regional aquifers fall.

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In response, the government's controversial South-North Water Transfer Project aims to send almost 45 billion gallons each year from the Changjiang (Yangtze River) through a series of giant canals to Beijing and other parts of the north.

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The project, budgeted to cost twice as much as the Three Gorges Dam, is the world's largest civil engineering endeavor and is not scheduled to be fully completed until 2050.

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It might be more efficient, however, to encourage northern provinces to reduce their production of water-intensive food and focus on items which have higher value added and lower water content, according to the researchers.

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But the government's efforts to encourage more industrial development in the west have so far had limited success. The south's industrial advantage has appeared to become even more entrenched in the last decade, forcing northern areas even deeper into water scarcity.

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(Editing by David Evans)

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U.N. climate talks more advanced second time around, says former head

U.N. climate negotiations have made greater progress towards agreeing a 2015 deal to bind all nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions than the lead-up to the previous attempt in 2009, former U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer told Reuters.

Envoys from almost 200 nations are aiming to agree this year on the main elements of a text to be signed by their leaders in Paris in late 2015 to tackle the emissions from 2020 that U.N.-backed scientists say are causing more severe droughts, flooding and a rise in sea levels.

"The process is definitely further advanced a year before Paris than it was a year before Copenhagen (in 2009)," de Boer said in an interview in London on Tuesday.

The Dutch diplomat was the public face of the negotiations from 2006 but stepped down shortly after the Copenhagen talks almost broke down despite the attendance of more than 130 world leaders late into the final night.

Late on Monday, the U.N. published several documents on its website meant to help guide negotiators towards agreed wording for the Paris deal, including on what countries need to include in their individual contributions and how richer nations will make good on a commitment to mobilise $100 billion a year to help poorer states.

"There is now greater clarity on the way forward on many of the substantive areas," one document said.

For de Boer, who has led the Global Green Growth Institute advising developing countries since March, December's summit in Lima, Peru, will indicate whether the world will be able to come together on the issue.

LITMUS TEST

"For me, Peru will be the litmus test. Having a clear negotiating text on the table ... will give everyone a much clearer understanding of what the definition of success or failure is.

"One of the major handicaps of Copenhagen was that so many people had so many different definitions of success," he said, adding that in the lead-up to the conference it was clear that a fully-fledged treaty would not be struck.

"Small island states and the European Union were negotiating towards an international legally binding treaty that would contain obligations for pretty much everyone... whereas others, notably the United States and China, were just looking for a political agreement."

Ahead of Paris, nations have agreed that all countries should contribute, but it remains unclear what legal weight any pact will carry, or which should make the strictest contributions.

De Boer said a meaningful Paris deal would require every country to convert their contributions into national law, both to ensure they are met and to help companies raise investment in cleaner technologies.

Rather than the aim of some in Copenhagen to lock in adequate targets from the outset, countries will need to review their initial contributions, including cash from richer nations, every three years or so.

This would ensure they are in line with their previously agreed goal of limiting global temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

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"I do not expect Paris in one fell swoop to take us to 2C. More steps will be needed," he said.

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The U.N. negotiations resume for a week in October in Bonn, Germany before the two-week Lima session in December.

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(here)

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(Editing by Louise Heavens)

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Lawsuit demands Calif. stop approving pesticides that harm honeybees

California regulators violated the law by approving expanded use of pesticides that have been shown to hurt honeybees needed for pollinating key American crops, according to a lawsuit filed against the state by environmental groups on Tuesday.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction prohibiting the state Department of Pesticide Regulation from approving any new neonicotinoid products or new uses of those products unless it completes a required re-evaulations of the pesticides.

The environmental and food safety non-profit groups also seek to overturn the department's recent approval of expanded use of Venom Insecticide, manufactured by Valent USA, a unit of Sumitomo Chemical Co Ltd, and Dinotefuran 20SG, made by Mitsui Chemicals Agro.

The Center for Food Safety, Beyond Pesticides and the Pesticide Action Network North America, filed the lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court.

The Department of Pesticide Regulation, Valent USA and Mitsui Chemicals Agro did not respond to requests for comment.

The new insecticides are part of a controversial class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, or "neonics," that have become a subject of scrutiny in Europe and the United States as concern has mounted that they harm honeybees and other pollinators, which are crucial to food production.

Honeybees pollinate plants that produce about a quarter of the food consumed by Americans, including apples, almonds, watermelons and beans, according to U.S. government reports.

Neonics are sold by agrichemical companies to boost yields of staple crops such as corn, but they are also widely used on annual and perennial plants in lawns and gardens.

Over the past few years, bees have been dying at a rate the U.S. government says is economically unsustainable. The White House last month said it was forming a task force to study how to reverse the rapid decline in the number of honeybees.

(Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)

Severe storms leave four dead in New York state and Maryland

Thunderstorms and high winds swept through the U.S. Northeast on Tuesday following tornado warnings, killing three people in New York state and a boy who was crushed to death by a fallen tree in Maryland, weather and emergency officials said.

One of the hardest-hit spots was a community outside the hamlet of Peterboro in Madison County, New York, 25 miles (40 km) southeast of Syracuse, where a severe storm with high winds struck at about 7 p.m.

The full extent of damage there was not immediately clear. But the National Weather Service office in Binghamton, New York, said local emergency management authorities had confirmed three deaths "from three collapsed homes." The storm uprooted trees and tore down power lines across several counties in central New York, part of a broader expanse of extreme weather that stretched from the Ohio Valley and parts of New England through the mid-Atlantic region, police and weather officials said.

CNN reported nearly 500,000 homes and businesses without power Tuesday, mostly in Pennsylvania and New York state.

Mark Pellerito, a meteorologist for the Binghamton office, told Reuters the storms in and around Madison County "exhibited a lot of rotation," and a number of tornado warnings were issued earlier in the evening based on radar data.

He said ground teams would have to examine the site near Peterboro, part of the larger town of Smithfield, on Wednesday to determine conclusively whether property damage was caused by high winds or twisters.

Pellerito said the outbreak of severe weather originated Tuesday afternoon in northeastern Ohio, where relatively weak twisters were reported before the storms spread eastward along a cold front and gathered strength.

In Carroll County, Maryland, northwest of Baltimore, a storm packing high winds and heavy rain struck at about 7 p.m., catching a group of children at play at the River Valley Ranch summer camp, said Don Fair, a spokesman for the Lineboro Volunteer Fire Department.

He said nine children, aged 15 or younger, sought shelter from tree limbs and other debris carried by the winds when one boy in the group was pinned by a fallen tree. The boy was killed, but the eight others suffered only relatively minor injuries, Fair told Reuters.

"It's a difficult thing. It reaped a lot of devastation," said Fair, a first responder who lives nearby. “I’m just sad it had to be there."

(Additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson from Seattle; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Ron Popeski)

U.S., China ink coal, clean energy deals but climate differences remain

The United States and China on Tuesday signed eight partnership pacts to cut greenhouse gases that will bring the world's two biggest carbon emitters closer together on climate policy, but fundamental differences between the two sides remain.

Consensus between the United States and China will be a crucial part of any new global climate pact to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, but they have long struggled to come to an agreement on how the costs of cutting greenhouse gases should be distributed among rich and poor nations.

Speaking in Beijing during the latest round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday that the two sides remained committed to "close dialogue" on climate change negotiations.

"The significance of these two nations coming together can't be understated.  We are working hard to find a solution together that can have an impact on the rest of the world."

The deals, which involve companies and research bodies, were signed in Beijing ahead of a two-day visit to China by top Obama administration officials, including Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

The signing was attended by Xie Zhenhua, vice chairman of China's influential economic planner, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), Todd Stern, the lead U.S. climate treaty negotiator at the U.S. State Department, Obama adviser John Podesta and Lee Zak, director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency.

In one of the memoranda of understanding (MOUs), China's Huaneng Clean Energy Research Institute, a subsidiary of state-owned power company China Huaneng and Washington-based Summit Power Group agreed to share information on clean coal power generation technology.

Huaneng is part of a Chinese consortium operating a 400-MW pilot integrated gasification combined cycle plant in Tianjin.

Under the pact, Huaneng will share information with Summit Power, which is expected to soon break ground on a similar project in Texas after it secures engineering and procurement support from Petrochina and Chinese engineering firm Huanqiu Contracting and Engineering.

The MOU is expected to be signed on Wednesday in Beijing.

Summit, in turn, will share information and technology for recovering oil from captured carbon.

"This (pact) accelerates sharing of information on carbon capture and storage for power," said Julio Friedmann, deputy assistant Secretary for Clean Coal for the U.S. Department of Energy.

The partnership will be a boon to both countries, said Laura Miller, a former mayor of Dallas who now manages the Texas Clean Energy Project.

"We will be sharing expertise, years of development experience and non-proprietary technology on both projects, all while making giant steps forward for the world's environment," she said in an interview.

Another project partners West Virginia University with Yanchang Petroleum on an industrialized demonstration of ultra-cleaning technology in northern Shaanxi province.

The University of Kentucky, another coal state university, will partner with Shanxi Coal International Energy Group and Air Products and Chemicals Inc on a project feasibility study for a 350MW supercritical coal-fired power plant that can capture 2 million tonnes of CO2 a year.

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STICKING POINTS

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At a news briefing in the Chinese capital on Wednesday, the NDRC's Xie welcomed the closer partnership of the world's top two CO2 emitters, but said more was needed in areas such as technological cooperation.

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"Developing countries are most concerned that they get funds and technological support from developed countries," he said. "On this issue, we are still having great difficulties and we have to put forth more effort."

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China has led the way in trying to persuade developed countries to set up financing mechanisms to help poorer nations cut emissions and adapt to climate change.

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The issue remains a major stumbling-block in talks on a new global accord, with the United States and others reluctant to commit funds.

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Stern, the U.S. climate negotiator, said the United States didn't disagree with China that there should be a differentiation in responsibilities between developing and developed countries, but that using old definitions for those labels established in 1992 was a sticking point.

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"I've had long and detailed conversations on this subject with vice chairman Xie and others," he said. "We don't quarrel with the basic concept."

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Xie told Chinese media on Tuesday that wider two-way talks would include a special high-level meeting on climate change, focused on discussing domestic and international policies and possible cooperation.

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The U.S. delegation is in China for the sixth round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which are high-level meetings on cooperation in areas from security to agriculture.

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(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton, Kathy Chen and David Stanway in Beijing; Editing by Ros Krasny, Clarence Fernandez and Jeremy Laurence)

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Weakened typhoon leaves two dead, heads north from Okinawa to main Japan islands

Torrential rains from a weakened but still dangerous typhoon battered Japan's Okinawa islands on Wednesday, leaving two dead and threatening widespread flooding as the storm headed for the nation's main islands.

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Typhoon Neoguri, a super typhoon as it bore down on Okinawa this week, had winds gusting up to 162 kph (100 mph) on Wednesday, but weather forecasters said the major concern now was rain, especially as parts of the westernmost main island of Kyushu have already been hit by heavy rain over the last week.

Authorities warned of record rainfall in Okinawa as rivers in some areas overflowed. More than 200,000 residents were told to leave their homes, down from over 500,000 on Tuesday.

"Given the situation, there is still potential for some serious damage," an official from the Japanese Meteorological Agency (JMA) told a news conference.

Some 30 people were injured, mainly from falls, but none of the injuries was life-threatening. Television footage showed a collapsed building and flooded streets in Okinawa.

Neoguri was moving north across the East China Sea at 20 kph as of 9 a.m. (2000 ET), with sustained winds of 126 kph. It was expected to draw near Kyushu on Thursday morning before moving east along the main island of Honshu.

"This typhoon has very active rain clouds and this will continue as it moves east over areas that have already been hit by downpours as part of the rainy season," said a JMA official.

"Given how soaked the ground is in some parts of Kyushu already, there is a high danger of landslides and floods, even though the typhoon's strength is diminishing."

There are two nuclear plants on Kyushu and another on nearby Shikoku island.

All of Japan's 48 nuclear reactors are shut down three years after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which was wrecked by an earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. The stricken plant is on the other side of the country.

Nansei Sekiyu KK, a Japanese refiner wholly owned by Brazil's Petrobras, suspended operations at its 100,000 barrels-per-day Nishihara refinery in Okinawa on Monday evening and still had not resumed them on Wednesday.

Tokyo may see heavy rains on Friday but the impact on the capital is otherwise expected to be minimal, the JMA official said. Around two to four typhoons make landfall in Japan each year but they are unusual in July.

(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Ron Popeski)

Natural disaster costs down so far in 2014: Munich Re

Floods, storms and other natural disasters claimed more than 2,700 lives and caused around $42 billion in damage worldwide in the first half of 2014, but this was well below the first half of last year and a 10-year average, reinsurer Munich Re said on Wednesday.

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The world's biggest reinsurer said landslides and flash floods in Afghanistan were the deadliest disasters, claiming more than 650 lives, while snow storms in Japan were the costliest, with insured losses of more than $2.5 billion.

Storm "Ela", which hit parts of western Europe in early June, is expected to cost insurers about 1.8 billion euros ($2.5 billion), Munich Re said. In Germany alone, insured losses from the storm came to 650 million euros.

But the $42 billion bill in the first half and the $17 billion in claims paid by insurers were below the average of the last 10 years of $95 billion and $25 billion, respectively, Munich Re said in its six-monthly review of natural disasters.

The number of deaths worldwide fell to a fraction of the 53,000 seen on average over the last 10 years and the 9,100 recorded in the first half of 2013.

"Of course, it is good news that natural catastrophes have been relatively mild so far," Torsten Jeworrek, Munich Re's board member responsible for the global reinsurance business, said in a statement.

"But we should not forget that there has been no change in the overall risk situation."

Munich Re's assessment echoed other warnings that it currently looked as though El Nino - a warming of sea temperatures in the Pacific Ocean - would develop in the autumn.

El Nino affects wind patterns and can trigger both floods and drought in different parts of the globe, hitting crops and food supply. Munich Re said a strong El Nino would make it more likely that there will be La Nina system in the following year, which tends to cause an increase in hurricane activity.

Reinsurers such as Munich Re and rival Swiss Re help insurance companies to cover the cost of heavy damage claims from disasters such as floods, hurricanes or earthquakes in exchange for part of the premiums the insurers charge their customers.

Munich Re is expected to say what its own share of losses was in the first half when it publishes financial results on Aug. 7.

(Reporting by Maria Sheahan; Editing by Kirsti Knolle and Jane Merriman)

East Coast wakes up to power cuts after storms kill five

Thousands of people in U.S. East Coast states woke up to power cuts and a major clean-up operation on Wednesday after severe storms and high winds killed five people.

One of the hardest hit spots was the Syracuse-area community of Smithfield, New York, where four of the deaths were reported and at least four homes destroyed on Tuesday, Madison County Undersheriff John Ball said in a statement.

In Maryland, one boy was killed and eight others, aged 15 and under, were injured when they tried to shelter from tree branches and other debris being whipped around by the wind.

The storms uprooted trees and tore down power lines across several counties in central New York, as the extreme weather raged from the Ohio Valley and parts of New England through the mid-Atlantic region, police and weather officials said.

Roughly 174,000 people were without power in the Philadelphia region, Pennsylvania utility PECO spokeswoman Jackie Thompson said.

CNN reported nearly 500,000 homes and businesses without power on Tuesday, mostly in Pennsylvania and New York state.

Mark Pellerito, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Binghamton, New York, told Reuters the storms in and around Madison County "exhibited a lot of rotation", and tornado warnings were issued during the evening.

Four people were killed from three collapsed homes and two other homes were destroyed in Madison County, the National Weather Service office in Binghamton said. The storms had dissipated by Wednesday morning, it said.

Pellerito said ground teams would have to examine the area on Wednesday to determine conclusively whether property damage was caused by high winds or twisters.

The severe weather had started on Tuesday afternoon in northeastern Ohio, where relatively weak twisters were reported before the storms spread eastward along a cold front and gathered strength, he said.

(Additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson from Seattle; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Louise Ireland)

Global warming requires more frequent rethink of 'normal' weather: U.N.

The baseline for "normal" weather used by everyone from farmers to governments to plan ahead needs to be updated more frequently to account for the big shifts caused by global warming, the U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization said on Wednesday.

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The WMO's Commission for Climatology believes rising temperatures and more heatwaves and heavy rains mean the existing baseline, based on the climate averages of 1961-90, is out of date as a guide, the WMO said in a statement.

"For water resources, agriculture and energy, the old averages no longer reflect the current realities," Omar Baddour, head of the data management applications at the WMO, told Reuters.

A government trying to decide where to build river flood defenses or a hydroelectric dam based on average rainfall could be misled by the 1961-90 data, for example, while a farmer studying average temperatures might plant crops that wilt in warmer conditions, he said.

Under current rules, the 1961-90 baseline is due to be updated in 2021, with the data from 1991-2020. The Commission for Climatology wants to see rolling updates every decade, making the current baseline 1981-2010 and the next period 1991-2020.

Some weather services have already adopted new baselines, which just causes confusion, the WMO said.

"Different researchers and weather services are using different baselines, which results in inconsistent comparisons," it said.

Baddour said the WMO also wants to retain the 1961-90 benchmark to judge long-term trends in climate change.

Last year, the U.N.'s panel of climate scientists raised the probability that human activities, led by the use of fossil fuels, are the main cause of global warming to at least 95 percent from 90 in a previous assessment in 2007.

(Reporting by Alister Doyle; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Storm leaves 244,000 in dark, shuts Buckeye pipeline in Pennsylvania

Over 244,000 homes and businesses in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic and Northeast states remained without power on Wednesday after severe thunderstorms rolled through the region overnight.

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Buckeye Partners LP, a U.S. petroleum pipeline operator, said in a notice to shippers that its Laurel refined products pipeline from Boothwyn, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, was shut due to a power failure.

Officials at Buckeye were not immediately available for comment.

Exelon Corp's PECO utility in the Philadelphia area said it expected to restore power to the Buckeye pipeline in about three hours.

Exelon said the storm affected about 260,000 customers and the company expects to restore power to most of the 43,000 still without service on Wednesday and Thursday. PECO, however, said that some customers in the hardest-hit areas may have to wait until Friday for power to be restored.

The following lists outages by utility:

Power Company State Out Now

National Grid NY 43,800

Exelon - PECO PA 43,500

FirstEnergy WV 38,700

FirstEnergy PA 27,300

FirstEnergy MD 24,800

PPL PA 19,800

Iberdrola - NYSEG NY 12,600

Exelon - BGE MD 12,500

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PSEG NJ 6,200

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FirstEnergy NJ 3,700

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Pepco - Pepco DC, MD 3,500

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Iberdrola - RG&E NY 3,200

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AEP - Appalachian VA, WV 2,000

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Green Mountain Power VT 1,300

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Pepco - Delmarva DE, MD 1,200

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Total 244,100

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(Reporting by Scott DiSavino and Robert Gibbons in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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At least one tornado confirmed in East Coast storm that killed 5

At least one tornado touched down in an upstate New York town during a violent spate of weather that killed five people on the East Coast, officials said on Wednesday.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo toured the hard-hit town of Smithfield, outside Syracuse, where four people were killed and at least four homes were destroyed in storms on Tuesday.

"It looks like literally a bomb went off in a house," Cuomo said. "We just see devastation everywhere."

New York victims included a 35-year-old mother and her 4-month-old daughter who died when their double-wide mobile home was leveled by the tornado, and a man who died with his dog in a house around the corner, Madison County Sheriff Allen Riley told reporters.

Barbara Watson, a National Weather Service meteorologist who inspected the Smithfield site, said the tornado that hit was at least an EF2, the second level of severity on the five-step Enhanced Fujita scale, with wind speeds well over 100 mph.

In Carroll County, Maryland, northwest of Baltimore, one boy was killed and eight others, aged 15 and under, were injured when they tried to take shelter from tree branches and other debris being whipped around by the wind.

(Additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson from Seattle; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Louise Ireland and Peter Cooney)

Research shows Gulf of Mexico oil spill caused lesions in fish: scientists

Oil that matches the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been found in the bodies of sickened fish, according to a team of Florida scientists who studied the oil's chemical composition.

"We matched up the oil in the livers and flesh with Deepwater Horizon like a fingerprint," lead researcher Steven Murawski, a professor at the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science in Tampa, told Reuters.

He said the findings debunk arguments that fish abnormalities could have been caused by other factors including oil in coastal runoff and oil from naturally occurring seeps in the Gulf.

BP, whose oil rig caused the spill, rejected the research, stating in an emailed response that it was "not possible to accurately identify the source of oil based on chemical traces found in fish livers or tissue."

BP's statement added, "vertebrates such as fish very quickly metabolize and eliminate oil compounds. Once metabolized, the sources of those compounds are no longer discernable after a period of a few days."

Murawski disagreed with BP's response, saying the fish in the study had been exposed recently enough that it was possible to identify the chemical signatures of oil in their bodies.

The research team included scientists from USF, the Florida Institute of Oceanography and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. The work was published in the current edition of the online journal of Transactions of the American Fisheries Society.

Thousands of claims for damages against BP continue to be processed since the oil and gas producer’s Gulf rig exploded, killing 11 oil workers and spilling millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days after the April 2010 blast.

Fishermen in the northern Gulf near the blown-out well say they began noticing a spike in abnormal-looking fish, including many with unusual skin lesions, in the winter of 2010-2011.

Murawski said his team compared the chemical signatures of oil found in fish livers and flesh to the unique signature of the Louisiana sweet crude from the Deepwater well and signatures of other oil sources.

“The closest match was directly to Deepwater Horizon and had a very poor match to these other sources. So what we’ve done is eliminated some of these other potential sources,” he said.

Murawski said the team also ruled out pathogens and other oceanographic conditions. By 2012, the frequency of fish lesions declined 53 percent, he said.

(Reporting by Barbara Liston; Editing by David Adams and Eric Beech)

U.S. senators press for probe of report that oil companies blocked ethanol

Two U.S. farm-state Senators on Wednesday urged federal regulators to investigate allegations raised by a biofuel trade group that the oil industry uses "strong arm tactics" to prevent widespread use of higher blends of ethanol in gasoline.

A report from the Renewable Fuels Association this week said major oil companies have discouraged the sale of ethanol at levels of 15 percent per gallon (E15) and 85 percent per gallon (E85) at retail stations, by using distribution contracts that make it expensive or nearly impossible for franchises to offer the blends. (RFA report: bit.ly/1mIvQi9)

Senators Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, and Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, said on Wednesday that the report bolstered the case for the Federal Trade Commission to evaluate whether the oil industry has engaged in anti-competitive practices.

"This new report underscores the need for the FTC to look into these allegations, and I will continue pushing to ensure that consumers have access to the cheaper, cleaner fuels they deserve," Klobuchar, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee's antirust panel, said in a statement.

The Renewable Fuel Standard requires increasing amounts of ethanol and biodiesel to be blended into U.S. fuel supplies through 2022.

Higher blends of ethanol at the pump are needed to avoid the so called "blend wall," the point when federal law will require the use of more ethanol than can be absorbed at the 10 percent per gallon level that dominates U.S. gasoline stations.

Oil companies, who have long called for repeal of the biofuel mandate, say retailers have been reluctant to sell E15 due to concerns that it could harm engines in older vehicles, and that consumer do not want to buy the product.

Without infrastructure to accommodate the widespread sale of E15, refiners have said they would be forced to sell less gasoline or export more refined products to meet the law's requirements.

Klobuchar and Grassley have pressed the FTC for almost a year to probe whether oil industry practices regarding ethanol violate antitrust laws. It is unclear if the agency has taken action on the matter.

The RFA report found that independent, or unbranded, retail gas stations were four to six times more likely to offer E85 and 40 times more likely to carry E15 gasoline than stations associated with major oil company brands.

“Big oil interests can’t argue for repeal of the RFS because it doesn’t work when they’re the ones responsible for ensuring that consumers don’t have the choice for higher ethanol blends," Grassley said.

He also blasted the Environmental Protection Agency for a draft plan that would slash 2014 biofuel use targets in light of the looming blend wall, saying the agency had "fallen for Big Oil's rhetoric."

(Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Ros Krasny and Lisa Shumaker)

U.S. lawmakers threaten to subpoena EPA over power plant regs

Republican leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday threatened to subpoena the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to obtain documents related to rules on carbon pollution from power plants.

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Committee Chairman Fred Upton and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Murphy wrote to EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, saying that despite meetings between committee staff and EPA staff, "EPA has been wholly unresponsive to the committee."

The lawmakers have argued that the EPA's proposed carbon emission performance standards for new coal-fired power plants are not valid because they require the installation of carbon capture and storage (CCS), a technology that is currently not available on a commercial scale in the United States.

Upton and Murphy said a subpoena could be issued if the requested documents are not delivered by July 23.

The request is part of a wider effort by House Republicans to stop the EPA from implementing new rules curbing carbon emissions from new and existing power plants.

On Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee proposed as part of a must-pass spending bill a measure that would prevent the agency from implementing carbon restrictions.

Upton and Murphy say the EPA may have violated the Energy Policy Act of 2005 by relying on the viability of CCS in its regulatory proposal.

Some lawmakers and industry groups have argued that the 2005 law states that a technology cannot be deemed "adequately demonstrated" if it receives federal funding to be operational. The Department of Energy's clean coal power initiative has partially funded a few demonstration CCS projects.

The EPA has said new coal-fired power plants could meet stricter emissions limits because CCS has been "adequately demonstrated" and is the best available control technology available to plants.

Some of the documents requested by the committee include names of EPA employees responsible for reviewing the 2005 act and how it relates to the new power plant rule, and communications between EPA and DOE employees about CCS projects that have received funding.

The EPA had responded to an earlier request made by the lawmakers in March by saying it believed it had completed collection of responsive documents but would withhold "deliberative" documents until completion of the rulemaking process.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Ros Krasny)

Apple targets rising water use, production partners' emissions

Apple Inc acknowledged on Wednesday it needs to address manufacturing partners' carbon emissions and its own rising water consumption, though the iPhone maker said it had cut back sharply on greenhouse gas output.

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Apple last year hired former Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson to push cleaner initiatives, amid past criticism over its emissions and use of toxic materials. Observers say it has improved its practices and earned better scores from groups such as Greenpeace.

On Wednesday, Apple released its 2014 environmental responsibility report, saying investments in renewable energy helped slash its carbon footprint from energy use by 31 percent from fiscal 2011 to fiscal 2013. That's despite power consumption soaring 44 percent over the same period. (here)

But the company, which is building its future main campus not far from its current base in Silicon Valley, said water usage had spiked as a result of general construction and expansion. It also blamed production partners for the largest portion of its carbon footprint, without naming them.

Foxconn and Pegatron in Asia are among the companies Apple contracts to build devices like the iPad and iPhone.

"Carbon emissions from our manufacturing partners remain the largest portion of our carbon footprint, an area we’re committed to addressing," the company said in a blog post.

(Reporting by San Francisco newsroom)

Rain batters Japan as storm makes landfall, three dead

Heavy rain battered a wide swathe of Japan on Thursday, sending rivers over their banks and setting off a landslide as a weakened but still dangerous storm made landfall and headed east, leaving three people dead.

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Neoguri, which first threatened Japan as a super typhoon this week, had weakened to a tropical storm by the time it ploughed ashore on the westernmost main island of Kyushu. But it was still packing wind gusts of up to 126 kph (78 mph).

Heavy rains prompted the cancellation of hundreds of flights and trains and closed schools. The storm also fed into a stalled seasonal rain front, threatening flooding in distant regions.

A landslide sent mud and rock tumbling down a mountainside in the town of Nagiso in central Japan late on Wednesday, killing a 12-year-old boy and bringing to three the death toll from the storm.

"At first I thought it was an earthquake, then the house started filling with mud," one Nagiso resident told NHK national television. "I clung to a pillar with all my strength."

Some 50 people have been injured, many from falls.

There are two nuclear plants on Kyushu and one on Shikoku, which is also being hit by torrential rains, but there were no reports of anything unusual.

All of Japan's 48 nuclear reactors are shut down three years after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which was wrecked by an earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. The stricken plant is on the other side of the country.

Neoguri was 70 km northeast of the city of Miyazaki at 10 a.m. (0100 GMT) and moving east at 30 kph, with sustained winds of 90 kph.

"The chance of violent winds has pretty much vanished, but rain is still a concern in many places," an official from the Japan Meterological Agency official said.

"There are some places that may get as much as a month's worth of rain over the next 24 hours."

Nansei Sekiyu KK, a Japanese refiner wholly owned by Brazil's Petrobras, suspended operations at its 100,000 barrels-per-day Nishihara refinery in Okinawa on Monday evening and still had not resumed them on Thursday.

Two to four typhoons make landfall in Japan each year but a storm of this strength is unusual in July.

(Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Ron Popeski)

Parched California proposes steep fines for over-watering lawns

Regulators in drought-stricken California are proposing stringent new conservation measures to limit outdoor water use, including fines of up to $500 a day for using a hose without a shut-off nozzle.

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The most populous U.S. state is suffering its third year of drought and in January Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency, allowing the state to request federal aid.

In some cities and towns about half the water residents use is for lawns and cleaning cars, according to the State Water Resources Control Board, which made the proposal public on Tuesday. Voluntary measures do not go far enough, it said.

"It's not meant to spank people, it's meant to make people aware and say, 'This is serious; conserve'," said agency spokesman Timothy Moran, noting that the rules authorize local law enforcement agencies to write tickets imposing fines.

The new restrictions prohibit watering gardens enough to cause visible runoff onto roads or walkways, using water on driveways or asphalt, and in non-recirculating fountains.

Urban water agencies would be subject to daily fines of up to $10,000 for not implementing water-shortage contingency plans, which restrict how many days a week residents can engage in outdoor watering, among other limits on their customers.

Moran said the regulations, which constitute the first such statewide mandates for residents and urban water agencies, are subject to public comment and regulators will vote on July 15. If passed, they would take effect in August and remain in place for nine months with the possibility of being extended.

"California has been subject to multi-year droughts in the past and there is no guarantee that precipitation this winter will lift the State out of current drought conditions," the proposal says.

(Reporting by Madeleine Thomas; Writing by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Louise Ireland)

'Clinton: The Musical' gets U.S. debut at NY theater festival

"Clinton: The Musical," a bawdy, raucous farce parodying the sex scandal that rocked the White House, with two actors portraying the dual sides of Bill Clinton, makes its U.S. debut this month during the New York Musical Theater Festival.

Critics have described the show that premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland in 2012 before transferring to London as "witty, quirky" and a "delicious political satire."

The musical depicts Bill and Hillary Clinton's attempts to save the presidency following his affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

"Our play is a loving poke at Bill Clinton," Duke LaFoon, who portrays the Bill who gets into trouble, said at a preview. "He is quite the character, so there is a lot there to mine for jokes."

Karl Kenzler, as WJ Clinton, is the idealistic politician who genuinely wants to change the country and help his fellow man.

"Ultimately this show is a sharp farce. It's a parody and people make a lot of comparisons to 'South Park' and 'The Book of Mormon'," Kenzler said, referring to the TV comedy and hit Broadway play.

Written by Australian brothers Paul and Michael Hodge, the show has performances between July 18 and 25th at the festival, a showcase for new musicals.

The musical premieres in New York following publication of Hillary Clinton's memoir "Hard Choices," with the country guessing about whether she will run for president in 2016.

The Clintons did not respond to a request for comment about the show. There are also portrayals of Lewinsky, former Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich and Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor who issued a report on the scandal.

"When she is asked specifically about the scandal her answer is, 'I'm over that,'" said Alet Taylor, who plays Hillary. "She wants to move forward, so I don't know that our musical represents moving forward, but I think she is aware of it."

Paul Hodge decided to write the musical after seeing a play in Australia with his family about a former Australian prime minister. The idea emerged when his dad suggested that Clinton's story would make a great musical.

Hodge was initially reluctant about having two actors play the former U.S. leader, as suggested by his brother. Then he read Clinton's autobiography.

"He, himself, said he felt like he had led these two parallel lives and other people like his political advisor Dick Morris had little names for him like 'Saturday night Bill' and 'Sunday morning president' or the 'the boy scout and the politician,'" said Hodge.

Director Adam Arian collaborated with Hodge for nearly a year to bring the musical to the United States.

"I think Bill Clinton has a certain humanity that endears him to people and that he has both strengths and weaknesses and I think people understand that he is a human being," said Hodge.

(Editing by Mary Milliken and David Gregorio)

Mideast political minefield keeps 'Tyrant' producer nimble

It's hard to keep up with the social and political hurly-burly of the Middle East, but U.S. TV producer Howard Gordon got a hit out of it with "Homeland" and hopes to do the same with new series "Tyrant", even if it requires last-minute tweaks.

    While fellow Americans celebrated over the July 4 weekend, Gordon was back in Israel for his latest whirlwind visit to fine-tune upcoming episodes, based on feedback he has received about the series set in a Middle Eastern dictatorship buffeted by demands for change arising from the Arab Spring.

    There were complaints from Muslim American groups to weigh, as well as input from Middle Eastern dissidents. They are factored in to Gordon's drive to empathize, though he wants the series to work as a universal drama divorced from actual events.

    "I like to think that, as sort of amateur cultural diplomat, I create these stories as bridge-building," Gordon told Reuters.

    "We are listening to our Muslim colleagues and adjusting the material as much as possible. I appreciate the sensitivities, and no one is setting out to perpetuate or exacerbate stereotype, but we are here to tell a good story, a family drama, a saga."

    He likened the tale of an Arab-American doctor embroiled in the Middle East autocracy run by his father and brother to "The Sopranos" or "Sons of Anarchy" - shows about a New Jersey mob and a Californian motorcycle gang, respectively.

    "Tyrant" take place in a fictional Arab country stripped of the sectarian or political labels that abound in the news.

    "You will never hear Sunni or Shia or Alawite or Hashemite, because it is too complicated to render dramatically," Gordon said.

"This is at some level a totally challenging show - by definition reductive on one hand and on the other a distillation of many of the countries and people and characters we've seen."

    While hearing real accounts of life under oppressive rule prompted Gordon to rewrite episodes 2 and 3, he said he sought to preserve a balance by also showing the tyrant of the title had economic achievements to his credit.

   

    HORNET'S NEST

    "He's not just a monster," Gordon said. "It's fascinating, but also a minefield of potential controversy. The storyteller in me was very attracted to the hornet's nest of it."

    "Tyrant" began broadcasts last month to middling reviews - a factor that may decide if the U.S. producer gets his wish of a second season.

    Gordon learned to take critics' flak over his hits "Homeland" and "24". Both tended to view the Middle East through counter-terrorist gunfights and are enjoying long runs.

    "Homeland" was inspired by an Israeli television series, "Hatufim", and partly shot in the Jewish state, an experience that contributed to all the episodes of "Tyrant" being made there, too, after the pilot used locations in Morocco. 

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    The Israeli crews were highly professional, Gordon said, and while not as keen as American counterparts to work overtime, thrifty. He estimated each "Tyrant" episode cost 15 percent less than it would have in Los Angeles, where relative paucity of tax breaks has driven much television production to cheaper sites.

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    The "Tyrant" cast also appreciated the quality of life available, after hours, in Israel, Gordon said - although an initial arrangement to use a studio near freewheeling Tel Aviv fell through, forcing the entire production to relocate to sound stages erected on strawberry fields outside rural Kfar Saba.

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    "We've had some glitches," he said.  

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    Gordon, who is working on two other shows concurrently, said that should there be another season of "Tyrant" he would likely limit shooting in Israel to secondary footage like exteriors and consider alternative locations in neighboring Turkey or Jordan.

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    "If we were to get the LA tax break, it might be an inducement to move much of the photography back," he said.

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    "There is also the political consideration of it," he added, noting the "potential political or perceived political incorrectness" of making a show about the Arab Spring in Israel.       

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(Writing by Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Eric Kelsey in Los Angeles; Editing by Michael Roddy and Raissa Kasolowsky)

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'Dawn of Planet of Apes' marks digital lib for actors

It's not easy playing an ape, even a highly intelligent one, but if Andy Serkis succeeds in captivating moviegoers, he will be thanking the obscure world of "motion capture," a digital technology that accurately translates performance into animation.

For "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," opening in U.S. theaters this weekend, director Matt Reeves says he pushed the boundaries of motion capture to achieve "photo-reality" in rendering the apes, particularly in their facial expressions.

In doing so, "Dawn" could usher in a new age for actors, allowing them to dream of delivering award-worthy dramatic performances using a technology generally utilized in sci-fi blockbusters.

"One of the hardest things to do is to create characters which are emotionally engaging and truthful," said Serkis, a British actor who has become a seminal figure for motion capture by bringing to life creatures such as Gollum in "Lord of the Rings" and King Kong.

Serkis said advancements now mean that a character's facial expressions and emotions have a "one to one" relation to the actor's.

In the sequel to 2011's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," Serkis plays Caesar, a brainy ape who leads his species and negotiates their interactions with humans.

In motion (or "performance") capture, multiple cameras record an actor playing scenes in a suit covered in hundreds of dot-like sensors, often against a green screen that visual effects artists then digitally transform into locations. The cameras capture the movements and feed them to computer software, where digital-effects artists animate characters accordingly.

For "Dawn," Reeves eschewed the green screen and instead had the actors playing apes don their motion-capture suits on location, interacting with the actors playing humans.

Once filmed, the scenes featuring the apes were sent off to Weta Digital, the New Zealand-based company that created the fantastical world of Middle Earth in "Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" films.

The Weta artists digitally layered ape qualities, from their anatomy to fur to movements, onto the faces and bodies of the actors. Lighting was often key to the illusion: each individual strand of fur and the glint in the apes' eyes responded to the light of the forest.

Joe Letteri, the Oscar-winning visual-effects supervisor at Weta working on "Dawn," said making human movements mimic an ape's took enormous effort, but the emotion came from Serkis.

"If you look at (the film) side by side, there's no question that's Andy's performance," he said.

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION

Serkis' many screen credits have earned him respect among the filmmaking community and fans of the franchises, but he has yet to be recognized in the awards race for his motion-capture roles.

He attributes this to a perception by the industry that motion capture is digitally driven and not creditable to the cast. Serkis believes things will change if more people are aware of how the animator's artistry is married to the actor's.

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"To deliver an emotionally engaging performance, does an actor have to be seen on screen? That's the big question. It is important that the role of the actor is acknowledged," he said.

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That could dawn on audiences soon. "For the first time, there is the option of very faithfully replicating the performance of what the actor delivered on set," said Paul Debevec, chief visual officer at the USC Institute of Creative Technology. Doubt as to whether such actors should be considered legitimate nominees for awards - "that should just be gone."

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Debevec is a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the organization that hands out Oscars, and sits on its science and technology council. He is also the chief scientific consultant for OTOY's Lightstage, a capture technology that digitally scans actors in 3D and can bank their appearance so they can play younger versions of themselves even as they age.

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Lightstage is derived from the technology used to age and to make Brad Pitt younger in 2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which earned Pitt an Oscar nomination for best actor, a notable moment for digitally enhanced performances.

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Most recently, while Sandra Bullock and George Clooney weren't transformed in Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity," they were placed into outer space using Lightstage performance capture. Bullock was nominated for best actress at this year's Oscars, and Cuaron won best director.

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The majority of big-budget films coming up over the next few years, from August's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" to the next installments of the "Avengers," "Avatar" and "Star Wars" franchises - Serkis also has a leading role in the latter - will be using performance-captured leading characters.

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"It's the most liberating tool for an actor, because you can never be typecast - you can play anything beyond your height, your shape, your sex, your color," Serkis said. "Whatever you are is not an obstacle."

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(Editing by Mary Milliken and Prudence Crowther)

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Hip hop duo Insane Clown Posse seek to lift gang label for fans

Hip hop duo Insane Clown Posse and the ACLU filed legal papers on Tuesday seeking to stop federal law enforcement authorities from categorizing their face-painted fan base known as the "Juggalos" as a criminal gang.

The duo and the American Civil Liberties Union intend to ask the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the decision of a lower court in late June that blocked them from challenging the FBI's designation of the Juggalos as a gang with criminal intent.

"The only way to remedy this injustice for all innocent Juggalos is to start with the root of the problem – the FBI’s arbitrary and erroneous branding of hundreds of thousands of music fans as gang members," said Michael Steinberg, an ACLU lawyer.

The Justice Department was not immediately available for comment.

The Michigan-based Insane Clown Posse paint their faces to look like clowns and are known for rebellious and provocative music that includes songs such "My Axe" and "Night of the Chainsaw" that often use harsh themes and language.

The Juggalos, who the group says are about a million strong, paint their faces to look like clowns and display a logo of a hatchet man on their clothes and jewelry.

A federal National Gang Threat Assessment in 2011 said a small number of Juggalos were forming more organized subsets and engaging in gang-like criminal activity, such as felony assaults, thefts, robberies and drug sales.

Vermeer portrait sells in London for 6.2 million pounds

A painting of Saint Praxedis by Johannes Vermeer, the 17th-century Dutch master who painted "The Girl with the Pearl Earring," sold at auction on Tuesday for 6,242,500 pounds ($10.62 million), Christie's said on its Twitter feed.

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The price achieved for one of only two Vermeers still in private hands was below the top of the guide price, which pegged the painting as being worth up to 8 million pounds.

"The Road to Calvary" by 16th-century Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Breugel, another standout work in Christie's Old Masters Week sales, sold for 5,514,500 pounds, the auction house said.

It said 18th-century Venetian painter Francesco Guardi's "Venice, the Bacino di San Marco with the Piazzetta and the Doge’s Palace" sold for 9,882,500 pounds while a portrait of Lady Frances Marsham by 18th-century British portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds sold for 4,786,500.

The Vermeer came from the collection of the late American collector Barbara Piasecka Johnson, with proceeds going to her charitable foundation, Christie's said.

There had been debate for decades about the authenticity of the youthful work, which Vermeer painted when he was 23 and a recent convert to Catholicism.

Christie's said tests by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam of the paints that were used showed they were consistent with those in authentic Vermeers.

($1 =0.5877 British Pounds)

(Reporting by Michael Roddy; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

U.N. Women names actress Emma Watson goodwill ambassador

The United Nations' gender equality body UN Women on Tuesday appointed British actress Emma Watson, best known for her role as Hermione in the "Harry Potter" film series, as a goodwill ambassador to advocate for the empowerment of young women.

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"Being asked to serve as UN Women's Goodwill Ambassador is truly humbling," Watson, 24, said in a statement.

"Women's rights are something so inextricably linked with who I am, so deeply personal and rooted in my life, that I can't imagine an opportunity more exciting," she said.

Watson's films have grossed more than $5.4 billion worldwide over the past decade, according to the Internet Movie Database. She graduated from Brown University in May with a bachelor's degree in English literature.

Other UN Women goodwill ambassadors include Oscar-winning actress Nicole Kidman and Thailand's Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol.

(Reporting by Mirjam Donath, editing by G Crosse)

Lloyd Webber to revive 'Cats' in London, hints at movie

Andrew Lloyd Webber is about to find out if felines have more than one life - and possibly a cinematic one as well - as he prepares to bring his 1980s hit musical "Cats" back to London's West End for a limited run.

The creator of hit musicals including "Evita" and "Jesus Christ Superstar", announced plans this week to revive "Cats", his 1981 show based on poet T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats", for a 12-week run beginning on Dec. 6.

"I think it's just a great opportunity for us to get a second edition ... with this show I think it would be great just to have a go at it again and give it a bit of a rethink," he said at a launch event held in a London theater on Monday.

Lloyd Webber said he would also consider bringing back some of his other hits, such as "Phantom of the Opera" and "Starlight Express", and that movie versions were a possibility.

    "Yes I think it's very possible that I might have a look at one or two of my shows," Lloyd Webber said.

"And of course, the other thing that's happening is them being made into movies ... There is considerable talk at last about "Cats" being made into a movie so it gives me a chance to think about the material and how that can happen."

Lloyd-Webber's more recent musicals have not enjoyed the success of his earlier efforts. His most recent foray into the West End was "Stephen Ward", about the 1961 British politics-and-sex scandal known as The Profumo Affair which arose from a sexual liaison between the then Secretary of War, John Profumo, and aspiring model Christine Keeler.

The production opened in December 2013 but struggled at the box office and had its final performance at the end of March.

(In paragraph 2, this story corrects to say .. 12-week run ..not.. two-week run)

(Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Cute Japan pop star recruits soldiers as Abe boosts military

Just as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe beefs up Japan's military, the armed forces have turned to a 20-year pop idol for a softer touch in recruiting soldiers in a country that revels in all things cute.

"Working for the Self-defense Forces presents boundless dreams - like the earth, ocean and the sea," says Haruka Shimazaki of the all-girl group AKB48 in a new 30-second commercial distributed by the Defense Ministry.

"There's work that you can only do here," she says with a smile. A pink heart-shaped cherry petal spins as she points to the English phrase "You AND PEACE."

The nationally broadcast ad was released last week on the same day that Abe made his latest move toward a more muscular military, easing restrictions on Japanese troops fighting overseas. In April he eased decades-old restrictions on military exports after ending a decade of defense-spending cuts, worrying giant neighbor China.

It was just a coincidence that the ad, part of a broader recruitment drive, came out just when Abe's Cabinet was reinterpreting the pacifist, post-World War Two constitution to allow Japan's 224,526-strong military to defend friendly nations under attack, said a Defense Ministry spokesman.

"We want to give a friendly image and make it easier for youth to apply to the Self-defense Forces," said the spokesman, who asked not to be named, citing ministry policy. "We chose a member of AKB48 because the group is popular and well-known among high school students, the main target of our recruitment."

Shimazaki is one of the more bankable stars of the pop group. Fans recently voted her No. 7 among the 296 members of AKB48 and its sister groups.

The idol was selected, in part, because she had an earnest image, said an official at Asahi Advertising Inc, the ad agency that pitched Shimazaki to the Defense Ministry. Shimazaki previously did a spot for the Japanese Red Cross Society.

The ad follows a tradition of the armed forces using female idols as soft-sell recruitment draws. In a country known for adoring all things cute, the Defense Ministry has also long helped film directors, animators and TV producers produce military-themed content, including a cartoon about schoolgirls fighting tank battles.

Still, Shimazaki may have a tough sell.

Applications for military service run about 10 times the spaces available in recent years, but Abe's recent military moves are not popular. An opinion poll by Kyodo News after last week's historic shift showed 54.4 percent oppose allowing "collective self-defense," compared to 34.6 percent who support the change.

A photo of a bikini-clad critic with the caption "Let's all oppose collective self-defense" has circulated on Twitter and Facebook in response to the Defense Ministry's charm offensive.

(Editing by William Mallard and Nick Macfie)

A Minute With: Mark Ruffalo on mixing it up in acting and film

Actor Mark Ruffalo has played characters ranging from a gay AIDS activist and a sperm donor to a recovering sex-addict and an FBI agent and will reprise his role as the Incredible Hulk in next year's "The Avengers: Age of Ultron."

An Academy Award nominee for 2010's "The Kids Are All Right," Ruffalo, 46, is appearing in U.S. theaters in the musical film "Begin Again" and will be seen later this year as an Olympic wrestling champion in "Foxcatcher."

The versatile actor has also worked behind the camera on the award-winning film "Sympathy for Delicious" and is the founder of the non-profit group Water Defense, which works to keep water clean.

Ruffalo, whose brother was murdered in his California home in 2008, spoke to Reuters about his aversion to violent roles, his washed up record producer in "Begin Again" and a desire to return to Broadway.

Q: In "Begin Again" you play Dan, who reassesses his life. Did you identify with your character at all?

A: Only in the most minute way. A lot of times I think as people, as actors, we have pretty much a universal understanding of probably every aspect of what it is to be a human being at some point in your life.

As an actor you are turning up the volume on different aspects and qualities. A lot of Dan I understand but I am not as extreme as him and it hasn't happened to me as extremely as him. But I ... understand what it is to have shifting priorities and feel your fallibilities and your sense of mortality.

Q: The film is very musical. Have you ever played an instrument?

A: I was a bass player in a punk rock band in the 80s, like a garage band, so I knew how to play the bass in a rudimentary way. I'm not saying I am talented in any way.

Q: You've done a lot of indie as well as big studio films. Which do you prefer?

A: They each have their drawbacks and they each have their strong qualities. But essentially you are still doing the same thing in each one. You are listening and responding in a place as a character.

The power of a small movie is the concentration of energy over a specified period of time and the relationship that you have with the people you are working with is much more intimate. In a bigger movie you have the luxury of more time, a bit better toys, more preparation, more comfort but you lose a little bit of the intimacy and the immediacy. I find myself trying to find a way to do both.

Q: Several years ago you moved your family from Los Angeles to New York. Why do prefer New York?

A: Part of it is I grew up in a place that had water and seasons and trees and a lot of greenery. Part of it is the open nature of the culture here. It is a much more diverse culture. It is not so film centric. It is not a one-industry town like Los Angeles can be.

Q: You have played vulnerable, sensitive characters. Are there other types of roles you would like to do?

A: I just want to keep going further and further beyond myself ... The gun-play stuff just doesn't interest me. It is a fantasy in a really destructive way that is very sexist and macho and so I never really found myself being interested in that. I have been a witness to what guns do to people in real life.

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Q: Your career started on the stage. Do you want to go back to the theater and Broadway?

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A: I'm dying to go back to the stage and have an idea to take this ("Begin Again") to the stage ... I think it is a character that would be great fun to play on the stage ...

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There's a lot I want to do. I want to get back into directing. I love that. I'm moving more into producing and I'm doing a lot of work with the environment and renewable energy with Water Defense solutions project.

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(Editing by Mary Milliken and Lisa Shumaker)

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A Minute With: London's reigning queen soprano DiDonato is a kickboxer too

On stage and off, you don't want to tangle with Joyce DiDonato - American soprano extraordinaire and practiced kickboxer too.

The 45-year-old diva has been leaving audiences at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden roaring for her singing and performing of the hugely demanding bel canto (beautiful singing) role of the doomed Queen Maria Stuarda - Mary Queen of Scots - in the second of Donizetti's three Tudor operas.

There's hardly a more gripping and dramatic scene in opera than the one at the end of Act Two when DiDonato as Maria has a knock-down, drag-out confrontation with Queen Elizabeth I, sung by the up-and-coming Italian soprano Carmen Giannattasio.

They spit insults at each other, DiDonato hurls "vil bastarda" (evil bastard) at her rival and pulls the tablecloth from under Elizabeth's picnic lunch, sweeping all the food and dishes to the floor - all this in the full knowledge that it will ensure she has her head chopped off.

"I feel completely shattered," DiDonato, changed out of her 16th-century-style royal frock into a cocktail dress, told Reuters at a reception after the opening night on Saturday.

"This is the most difficult role I sing so I always have to step back a bit and make sure I've got some bit of me that is engaged just in navigating the vocalizing ... but there are two moments when I just lose it and I'm really not present anymore, and one of them is the confrontation scene," she said.

Otherwise DiDonato - who practices the martial art of kickboxing to keep fit because she finds fitness machines boring and shows off her arm muscles to prove it - thinks that in this production she has finally nailed a role she has also played at the Houston Opera and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

"The first time, in Houston, the part was 'singing me' kind of from beginning to end but I got through it. I did a lot of work and when I got to New York I'd say there was about 16 percent of the opera that was still 'singing me' and at some point I just had to get through those particular moments.

"Here I finally feel like now it's mine, I'm choosing in every moment how I want to sing it rather than this is the only way I can do it and I've never felt that with another role. This has been the biggest learning curve for me."

Here's what else she had to say about her long climb to the top of a cut-throat profession, her upcoming South American tour and new album after winning a Grammy in 2012 for "Diva Divo":

Q: You didn't have one of those immediate career successes, and didn't really hit your stride until about a decade ago, when London and European audiences embraced you before you'd become a star at home. Now you are a regular at the Met and sometimes host the global HD broadcasts. What's it like being at the top?

A: If you're at the top the bottom comes very quickly (laughs). But really, the only way through the time when you're not getting work and when it's hard and when things aren't coming is to go back and do the work you have to do. The work is what will get you through and if a singer starts to fail there's no way you can hide it, you have to work with what you have.

Q: You've got a big South American tour coming up and a new album of bel canto songs from Naples, but from some little known composers. Why this flirtation with the southern climes?

A: I was in South America just two years ago and after my first concert in Santiago I was so surprised that first of all it was sold out and then they literally showered the stage with flowers ... These audience were thirsty, and especially the young people, so after the first concert I called my manager and said let's find another tour and we booked it ...

There's a passion, an unfiltered joy and exuberance and that will lead me into the launch of "Stella di Napoli" which is my next album and really it's sort of an homage to bel canto opera.

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(Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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A Minute With: London's reigning queen soprano DiDonato is a kickboxer too

On stage and off, you don't want to tangle with Joyce DiDonato - American soprano extraordinaire and practiced kickboxer too.

The 45-year-old diva has been leaving audiences at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden roaring for her singing and performing of the hugely demanding bel canto (beautiful singing) role of the doomed Queen Maria Stuarda - Mary Queen of Scots - in the second of Donizetti's three Tudor operas.

There's hardly a more gripping and dramatic scene in opera than the one at the end of Act Two when DiDonato as Maria has a knock-down, drag-out confrontation with Queen Elizabeth I, sung by the up-and-coming Italian soprano Carmen Giannattasio.

They spit insults at each other, DiDonato hurls "vil bastarda" (evil bastard) at her rival and pulls the tablecloth from under Elizabeth's picnic lunch, sweeping all the food and dishes to the floor - all this in the full knowledge that it will ensure she has her head chopped off.

"I feel completely shattered," DiDonato, changed out of her 16th-century-style royal frock into a cocktail dress, told Reuters at a reception after the opening night on Saturday.

"This is the most difficult role I sing so I always have to step back a bit and make sure I've got some bit of me that is engaged just in navigating the vocalizing ... but there are two moments when I just lose it and I'm really not present anymore, and one of them is the confrontation scene," she said.

Otherwise DiDonato - who practices the martial art of kick boxing to keep fit because she finds fitness machines boring and shows off her arm muscles to prove it - thinks that in this production she has finally nailed a role she has also played at the Houston Opera and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

"The first time, in Houston, the part was 'singing me' kind of from beginning to end but I got through it. I did a lot of work and when I got to New York I'd say there was about 16 percent of the opera that was still 'singing me' and at some point I just had to get through those particular moments.

"Here I finally feel like now it's mine, I'm choosing in every moment how I want to sing it rather than this is the only way I can do it and I've never felt that with another role. This has been the biggest learning curve for me."

Here's what else she had to say about her long climb to the top of a cut-throat profession, her upcoming South American tour and new album after winning a Grammy in 2012 for "Diva Divo":

Q: You didn't have one of those immediate career successes, and didn't really hit your stride until about a decade ago, when London and European audiences embraced you before you'd become a star at home. Now you are a regular at the Met and sometimes host the global HD broadcasts. What's it like being at the top?

A: If you're at the top the bottom comes very quickly (laughs). But really, the only way through the time when you're not getting work and when it's hard and when things aren't coming is to go back and do the work you have to do. The work is what will get you through and if a singer starts to fail there's no way you can hide it, you have to work with what you have.

Q: You've got a big South American tour coming up and a new album of bel canto songs from Naples, but from some little known composers. Why this flirtation with the southern climes?

A: I was in South America just two years ago and after my first concert in Santiago I was so surprised that first of all it was sold out and then they literally showered the stage with flowers ... These audience were thirsty, and especially the young people, so after the first concert I called my manager and said let's find another tour and we booked it ...

There's a passion, an unfiltered joy and exuberance and that will lead me into the launch of "Stella di Napoli" which is my next album and really it's sort of an homage to bel canto opera.

_0">

_1">

(Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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'Homeland' will still thrill despite Brody's death, creator says

"Homeland" may have lost its sleeper terrorist anti-hero Nicholas Brody to an Iranian gallows, but the hit U.S. television show will continue to thrill, its creator says.

Howard Gordon described surviving cast members, led by the gutsy yet emotionally troubled CIA analyst Carrie Mathison, as having plenty of dramatic mileage in the fourth season due to premiere in the fall on premium cable channel Showtime.

"Fortunately Carrie is still a very robust character, (as are fellow CIA spies) Saul and Quinn. And there are tertiary characters who are now stepping more to the fore," he told Reuters during a visit to Israel, where he was overseeing his new production, "Tyrant", an Arab Spring drama.

Shot in Cape Town, South Africa, the fourth season of "Homeland" finds Carrie "on assignment, doing what she does. She is a person who is trying to stop terrorists doing bad things," Gordon said, without divulging further details of the plot.

She is still tackling Islamic militants, he said, "but it is more complicated than that. I would say that the bugaboos in 'Homeland' this year have to do as much with the American bureaucracy as with the ostensible enemy."

"Homeland" won sweeping acclaim for its portrayal of the anguished relationship between Mathison and Brody, a U.S. Marine ex-prisoner of war and secret al Qaeda recruit, played by Damian Lewis. After their torrid love affair, Brody carries out an assassination for the CIA in Iran, where he was executed at the end of season three.

That season was able to regain its standing with critics, after many derided the improbable plot twists of the second.

But how far the series has rebounded will also be measured this week in the number of top-tier Emmy nominations the show can earn. Season two won only two last year - for Claire Danes as best drama actress in her portrayal of Carrie, and for drama writing.

Emmy award nominations will be announced on Thursday.

Further fuelling the suspense of past "Homeland" seasons was how the CIA handled the discovery of psychiatric problems that Carrie had tried to conceal, as well as her surprise pregnancy.

In the next season, Gordon said, "Carrie has Brody's baby and her illness informs her maternity."

(Writing by Dan Williams; additional reporting by Eric Kelsey in Los Angeles; Editing by Michael Roddy and Mark Trevelyan)

North Korea complains to U.N. about film starring Rogen, Franco

North Korea has complained to the United Nations about a film starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, accusing the United States of sponsoring terrorism and committing an act of war by allowing production of a movie about a plot to kill its leader, Kim Jong Un.

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"The Interview" - due to be released later this year - is about an American television-show host and his producer who land an interview with Kim Jong Un, and are then recruited by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to assassinate the North Korean leader, according to Internet Movie Database (IMDb).

The letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon from North Korea's U.N. Ambassador Ja Song Nam, dated June 27 but made public this week, does not mention the name of the movie but talks about a plot that "involves insulting and assassinating the supreme leadership."

"To allow the production and distribution of such a film on the assassination of an incumbent head of a sovereign state should be regarded as the most undisguised sponsoring of terrorism as well as an act of war," Ja said.

"The United States authorities should take immediate and appropriate actions to ban the production and distribution of the aforementioned film; otherwise, it will be fully responsible for encouraging and sponsoring terrorism," he wrote.

Ja attached a June 25 story by the official KCNA news agency slamming the film with similar rhetoric.

Actor Rogen said on Twitter the same day: "People don't usually wanna kill me for one of my movies until after they've paid 12 bucks for it."

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Actor John Wayne's heirs sue university to use 'Duke' nickname

Heirs of film star John Wayne have sued Duke University over their right to use the late Academy Award winner's nickname, "Duke," to market a line of bourbon, describing the school's protests over such branding efforts as "ludicrous."

John Wayne Enterprises said it fears being sued by the private university in Durham, North Carolina, for trademark infringement unless a U.S. court intervenes. The school has challenged the heirs' plans to use the name in connection with restaurant services and alcoholic beverages.

"Duke University seems to think it owns the word 'Duke' for all purposes and applications," Wayne's heirs said in a federal complaint filed on July 3 in the Central District of California.

The Wayne family business said it was "ludicrous" for the school to argue that inclusion of the nickname on commercial products would cause confusion, dilute the university's brand or falsely suggest a connection between the school and the goods.

An exhibit attached to the suit shows a bottle of bourbon with the "Duke" name featured prominently on the label along with Wayne's image and signature.

Duke University spokesman Michael Schoenfeld said on Wednesday the school would continue its fight to protect its trademarks.

“While we admire and respect John Wayne’s contributions to American culture, we are also committed to protecting the integrity of Duke University’s trademarks," Schoenfeld said. "As Mr. Wayne himself said, 'Words are what men live by ... words they say and mean.’”

Wayne was an American movie legend best known for his roles in Westerns. He starred in the 1956 classic "The Searchers" and won an Oscar for best actor for his portrayal of U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 film "True Grit."

He died in 1979 at age 72.

(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Eric Beech)

Detroit art sale could bring less than half collection's value -expert

The Detroit Institute of Arts collection may be worth as much as $4.6 billion, but a sale of art works would raise less than $2 billion to pay the bankrupt city's creditors, according to a report released on Wednesday.

Michael Plummer, an art expert hired by the institute and the city to evaluate the collection and ways to raise cash from it, concluded that litigation and market conditions would depress prices. Liquidating the most valuable works would eventually force the museum to close, in his opinion.

"Rather than being a source of cash to creditors or a burden on the current city, in fact, the DIA is the single most important cultural asset the city currently owns for rebuilding the vitality of the city," Plummer reported.

Some of Detroit's hold-out creditors have been pushing the city to sell or monetize art works to increase settlement payments in the city's plan to adjust $18 billion of debt and exit the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

"The report makes it abundantly clear that selling art to settle debt will not generate the kind of revenue the city's creditors claim it will," said Bill Nowling, spokesman for Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.

A spokesman for one of those creditors, bond insurer Financial Guaranty Insurance Co, declined to comment.

Plummer, principal of Artvest Partners LLC, which was paid $112,500 to produce the report, estimated the collection's value at $2.76 billion on the low end, $3.68 billion in the mid-range and $4.6 billion on the high end.

A sale using the mid-range estimate would fetch as much as $1.8 billion or as little as $1.14 billion.

The collection includes "The Wedding Dance" by 16th century painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder as well as works by Vincent van Gogh and Rembrandt.

Under the so-called grand bargain in Detroit's debt plan, $366 million pledged by the DIA and philanthropic foundations and $195 million from the state of Michigan would be tapped to ease pension cuts for city retirees and prevent the sale of DIA works.

Artvest Partners' report warned that likely lawsuits from Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who has maintained the collection cannot be sold under state law, art donors and others would take years to resolve.

The art expert also said options to monetize the collection, including its use as collateral for a loan, were impractical.

Plummer's report follows an appraisal by auction house Christie's in December that estimated the fair market value of about 5 percent of the DIA's collection at $454 million to $867 million. While the new report was more extensive, Plummer noted that a full assessment or cataloguing of the collection would require at least 18 months.

A federal judge overseeing Detroit's historic bankruptcy has scheduled an Aug. 14 start date for a hearing on the fairness and feasibility of the debt adjustment plan.

Late on Tuesday, bankruptcy court mediators announced an agreement between the city and its hold-out police union "on important core economic terms that will become part of a multi-year collective bargaining agreement." As part of the deal, the union urged its members to vote in favor of Detroit's debt plan just days before Friday's deadline for the return of creditors' ballots.